Landscapes of Mangla Lake 2008

Pakistan’s water experts fear for the country’s future

As population explodes, Pakistan stares at a future where it will be a water scarce country.
Published June 28, 2016
Children bathing on the streets due to water shortages. ─ Photo by Ghulam Rasool
Children bathing on the streets due to water shortages. ─ Photo by Ghulam Rasool

As its population explodes, Pakistan stares at a future where it will be a water scarce country, but currently there is little new thinking in the government on how to tackle the crisis.

Dams, dams and more dams – of all sizes and kinds need to be built on a war footing because failing to do so would be disastrous for Pakistan.

This was the vehement and unanimous conclusion from scientists, water experts, agriculturists and climatologists who gathered for a 2-day workshop titled, "The Indus Basin Challenge – The Need for a Collective Response", organised by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), in the latter half of May in Pakistan’s hilly tract of Bhurban.

Fears of water scarcity

“Pakistan will become water scarce by 2025," pointed out Dr Ghulam Rasul, the director general of the, Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD).

He recommended that, without wasting more time, Pakistan should come up with a water policy, build water storage's and develop a mechanism to regulate and protect groundwater.

In Pakistan water availability per person annually is just 1,017 cubic meters, dangerously close to 1,000 cubic meters, crossing which would mean the country is water scarce.

NASA’s researchers found that of the planet’s 37 largest aquifers studied between 2003 and 2013 the Indus Basin aquifer is the second most over stressed and was being depleted while receiving little to no recharge. It is also on the World Resource Institute‘s water stress index.

In a report – yet to be released – by the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) it is apparently stated that the country touched the "water stress line" in 1990 and crossed the "water scarcity line" in 2005.

But can anything be done to turn the clock back?

"Unfortunately not," said Arif Anwar, who heads the IWMI in Pakistan.

"We have a certain population and our birth rate is changing rapidly.

So the situation is really very desperate and acute".

At present the country’s population is estimated to be around 190 million.

Water facilities in a rural area. ─ Photo by Ghulam Rasool
Water facilities in a rural area. ─ Photo by Ghulam Rasool

By 2030 it will grow to 244m, and by 2100, Pakistan’s population is projected at 364m, states the World Population Prospects 2015. With a rising population the demand is going to increase. According to a 2015 IMF report the demand for water is on the rise and is projected to reach 274 million acre-feet (MAF) by 2025, while supply is expected to remain stagnant at 191 MAF, resulting in a demand-supply gap of approximately 83 MAF.

At the same time, poor management of existing water resources, compounded by changing precipitation patterns due to global warming has made Pakistan susceptible to extreme floods, long spells of drought and increasing natural disasters. On German watch’s Climate Risk Index, Pakistan is among the ten countries most affected by extreme weather events.

And this despite Pakistan being surrounded by 7,259 glaciers with 2,066 cubic kilometres of ice in the three mountain ranges of the Himalayas, Hindukush and Karakoram spanning 11,780 square kilometres.

Indus Water Basin. ─ Dawn GIS
Indus Water Basin. ─ Dawn GIS

It is these glaciers that feed the mighty Indus and its 1.12 million square kilometre basin, 47pc of which is in Pakistan and 39pc, 8pc and 6pc in India, China and Afghanistan respectively. Pakistan’s agriculture accounts for 93pc of water drawn from the Indus.

"Pakistan is heading to the water scarce value because of population increase not necessarily because the volume of water in the country has decreased," said Anwar.

He said that there were other countries in the world that were also water scarce. Giving the example of the Middle East, he said: “But they don’t depend on water as much as we do they depend on oil. So it is a problem for us unless we can either develop our economy away from water, as say the Silicon Valley has done, or start to export people in very, very large numbers!” he quipped.

Easier said than done

To work on water issues one needs to coordinate between multiple actors. "Water operates on many levels and at many scales. It has economic, legal and social ramifications. It is the concern of citizens, farmers, local and provincial governments, to name a few," said Ahmad Rafay Alam, a leading environment lawyer.

But with so many players and so many levels of water discourse, there is no single solution he said. "There, however, can be means of managing the chaos," he added.

In the meanwhile there is little innovative thinking in the sector. "Water is dominated by engineers and by the government," said Anwar. “The engineers tend to approach it from a hardware and technology side of things─let’s build more of this or that e.g. dams and more dams, they say".

To compound the problem, the government does not allow the private sector – whether for-profit or not-for-profit firms – into water related issues.

"The government feels it has a monopoly on good ideas as well as skills and capacity and so there is little innovative thinking in the water sector…just more of the same," said Anwar.

He further said water was generally low on the agenda as compared to power and both were handled by the Water and Power Ministry.

Sunrise over the mountains of Kalabagh in Mianwali. ─ Photo by Ghulam Rasool
Sunrise over the mountains of Kalabagh in Mianwali. ─ Photo by Ghulam Rasool

"Whereas dams are being constructed, largely for power, water is not high on the agenda. There are a large number of what are called rehabilitation projects. However, these are largely projects where we have allowed the infrastructure to decay to a level that they need a very large investment." That’s where development banks step in to provide loans and the infrastructure is returned to its original level, he said.

"Some lip-service is paid to improving the management of water but it is an only half serious attempt; the focus remains on engineering because that is what engineers like to do," said Anwar.

In all this it is the ordinary people who are experiencing the costs of water shortage.

Take the case of the southern port city of Karachi, also Pakistan’s most populated city.

Long power outages have led to disruptions in water supply with protests and riots becoming a routine come summer when tempers and temperatures soar. "If water is not given to Karachi, we will change the geography of the province," warned a spokesperson of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a political party, which held a rally on June 5, World Environment Day.

The mismanagement – and huge demand – have also led to the proliferation of unethical actors. The Karachi Water Sewerage Board (KWSB) recently found that there were nearly 196 illegal hydrants across the city with seven million gallons of water being sold illegally.

No new dams, and groundwater depletion

No major dams have been constructed since the Tarbela in 1976. Along with Mangla the two major reservoirs in the Indus basin store only 14 MAF of the 145 MAF that flows through Pakistan annually, and that too only for 30 days. The international standard is 120 days.

Data: Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources.
Data: Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources.

At the same time, we are draining our last resort – the aquifers – faster than we can replenish them. The water table is falling at an alarming rate from one to ten feet per year at the canal command areas and almost all the urban centres. In 1960, there were about 20,000 tube wells; today there are over one million, lamented Muhammad Ashraf, chairman of the PCRWR. Nearly 50-55 MAF is pumped out, while 40-45 MAF is recharged. In the 1960s only about one MAF was pumped out.

Landscape of Mangla Lake in 2008. ─ Photo by Ghulam Rasool
Landscape of Mangla Lake in 2008. ─ Photo by Ghulam Rasool

He further said: "Anyone can install any number of wells of any capacity, at any depth and can pump any amount of water at any time". There is no regulatory framework to manage groundwater.

Not only has the quantity of groundwater depleted, the water has been contaminated with industrial and municipal effluent. If groundwater in parts of Punjab and Sindh is laced with arsenic, in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa it has fluoride and nitrates.

Transboundary water sharing gets complicated

The situation is no better at the transboundary level. There is no mention of the groundwater distribution in the 1960 transboundary Indus Waters Treaty. When the water distribution treaty was being negotiated, there was little information about the Indus basin’s aquifers but now more than ever experts want the sharing of groundwater to be included.

"There is little research on the characteristics of aquifers underlying the Indus basin. Unless and until there is reliable and shared information about the aquifers, no sound policy or sharing mechanism can be devised and it would be foolish to think that IWT could be amended without the proper research to support an amendment," said Alam, who has studied the treaty at length.

Transboundary mistrust

Limited access to water and climate data in the region, said Mirza Asif Baig, the Indus Water Commissioner, has only exacerbated the cooperative environment required for trans-boundary water dispute resolution between Pakistan and India.

At the moment, said Baig, hydrological data that is important for Pakistan and for which no additional data collection systems are required to be installed, are not being provided by India despite repeated requests from Pakistan.

"There are provisions for bilateral data sharing but these have been made ineffective by legal trickery thus making the Treaty operate in an environment of non-cooperation instead of co-operation".

He, however, made it clear that the flood data that is provided by India is useful for Pakistan but there are other data that are denied that are much required and its supply would definitely improve the working environment of the Permanent Indus Commission.

But this lack of information and data sharing is not only between India and Pakistan but persists within intra government departments.

This lack of information sharing, said Baig, has hampered the various government departments to plan, manage and develop what is essentially a shared river basin with the result it has "adversely affected the efforts being made to protect lives and property of people from vagaries of natural disasters such as floods", he said.

But this lack of information and data sharing is not peculiar to India and Pakistan alone; it even exists between the different government departments within Pakistan who work in silos.

This article originally appeared on TheThirdPole and has been reproduced with permission.